27 February 2014



Subjects: Senator Conroy; QANTAS

KIERAN GILBERT: With me now the Assistant Minister for Defence, Stuart Robert and Labor frontbencher, Michelle Rowland. Thank you both for being here.

Now Michelle first to you, why doesn’t Senator Conroy apologise? He’s withdrawn those remarks to Lieutenant General, Angus Campbell, why not apologise if he regrets them as some of his colleagues seem to suggest he does?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS; SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM: I think Senator Conroy said the wrong thing, and he probably knew he said the wrong thing which is why he withdrew it. I think it is important to look at this in context as well. This is in the context of Senate Estimates hearings, which we have every year, where the Defence Forces have always been ready to answer questions. The refusal to answer questions is a political decision this time, a political decision of this government. And it reflects the level of frustration of not only this opposition, but also I believe the general public has, with the veil of secrecy that’s been going on here.

GILBERT: But on the comment, you’ve said that he said the wrong thing. The Shadow Minister hasn’t said that himself and he has not apologised. This is a three-star General we are talking about. Why doesn’t he apologise? Do you think he should?

ROWLAND: I can only speak for myself. I would not have made those comments.

GILBERT: Do you think he should apologise?

ROWLAND: That’s a matter for him. That’s completely a matter for him.

GILBERT: It sounds like you think he should.

ROWLAND: Whether or not he does is a matter for him. I’m simply telling you I have the utmost respect for our armed services. I have the utmost respect for General Campbell who is in charge of this. I do not have the utmost respect for the level of secrecy that has been going on here, particularly in Estimates where this is supposed to be the opportunity to scrutinise government. We live in a democracy. Let’s not forget we live in a democracy here. This is the democratic process and that’s what I think we should all bear in mind.

GILBERT: Stuart Robert you are a former soldier, a member of the Army. Do you think the military has been comfortable being used in this manner, for this policy, because hasn’t the policy itself and that fact that the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders is a three-star General, hasn’t that put him in a position where he’s open to some political flak?

STUART ROBERT: Well he’s open to be questioned about his role commanding the joint agency taskforce. He is not open to be accused of a political cover-up. That is an outrageous comment and that’s why Senator Conroy should apologise and if he doesn’t the Leader of Opposition should actually man up and enforce that he does. If someone like that from the government had made such a comment the Prime Minister would be there quick smart demanding an apology and making sure it never happens again. This is an issue for Bill Shorten now. Conroy has actually said he’s not going to man up. Senator Conroy has made it clear he sees nothing wrong with his behaviour. It’s up to the Leader of Opposition what he does.

GILBERT: But, he did withdraw the comment. Bill Shorten says that stands for itself. It shows that he didn’t think it was appropriate.

ROBERT: The problem with that is whilst Bill Shorten says that in one breath; in Parliament today he says he’s tried to call General Campbell. Well you don’t call General Campbell to say “General, Senator Conroy has withdrawn” you call to say “I’m sorry”. Well if that’s the case, either the withdrawal is enough or there’s no need to call, or the withdrawal is not enough and we both know it’s not. The nation knows it’s not. You can’t accuse a decorated military officer of a political cover-up when he’s just doing the job the government has asked.

GILBERT: Well that’s the point. It’s the job that the government has asked. Do you feel any responsibility for the fact that the General has had to cop this political criticism?

ROBERT: No that’s his job. We’ve asked and previous governments have asked Generals to do all sorts of things including taking care of bushfire scenarios to drought, including complex military operations. Accuse parliamentarians if you wish. Come after me, I’m a big boy I can handle it. Don’t come after military Generals who actually can’t fire back because frankly they’re not allowed to, there’s a whole range of discipline acts that govern how they behave and what they say. He has no right of reply, except to say he’s extremely offended. Come after me Senator Conroy. You want to accuse someone of a cover-up? Come after me, but don’t come after one of our decorated veterans and if you do man up and apologise.

GILBERT: That is the problem here. I’ll ask you the question I was going to ask, but there’s just some news that the ABC’s reporting. Papua New Guinea’s Royal Constabulary has just released a preliminary report that has cleared the PNG police and locals of responsibility for the death of the 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeking Reza Berati. That’s just news coming through now, they’re quoting the PNG Deputy Police Commissioner. Obviously that’s a developing part of that story this evening. Michelle Rowland, the issue of the General involved in doing what the government has asked him to do, there are many occasions where Generals are involved in what are contentious matters, not the least of which when there’s conflict or war and not both sides of politics agree to it.

ROWLAND: No doubt about it, but I would remind us all we’re not at war. This is a civilian operation which has been conflated with the military. I made the point in parliament some time ago that the Australian Defence Association, the body that represents these personnel, specifically warned that when this kind of policy in action occurs, you end up with a situation which may leave military personnel exposed to situations where they are in the political headlights and they should not be.

GILBERT: The Defence Association has said that, just to get Stuart Robert’s response to that point that the Defence Association, representing people in uniform, has expressed that very concern.

ROBERT: Yeah that’s right, but keeping in mind that General Campbell is there reporting to and responding to a Minister. If you wish to criticise the government, criticise the government. But, don’t criticise those the government has ordered to undertake difficult tasks. That’s the crux of the matter. This is not an issue about Operation Sovereign Borders or about 69 days of no boats. This is an issue about Senator Conroy thought he would accuse a servant of the people, rather than the government. Go after the government; don’t go after one of our soldiers.

GILBERT: Let’s wrap up with the Qantas issue. It’s going to be the big story tomorrow. Michelle Rowland, should Labor rethink its position on the Sale Act? Particularly in the face of what could be up to seven thousand jobs lost tomorrow?

ROWLAND:  If you are going to say for a moment that getting rid of the Sale Act is going to result in those jobs being kept: I think anyone who thinks that is delusional. Anyone who thinks that is delusional. I think it is very important for this country, this government, to have a clear policy about what it wants to do with our national carrier. That does not exist at the moment. That does not exist. And I think Anthony Albanese put it very simply when he pointed out that there are pragmatic reasons why we have foreign limitations in the Sale Act, because aviation routes are done between sovereign nations and you can only have up to a certain limit of foreign ownership in a national carrier. Now, I want to keep Australia having a national carrier. I want jobs to stay in Australia. I want maintenance to stay in Australia. There are a whole suite of things in that Qantas Sale Act that also go to these very important issues about keeping jobs, keeping investment in Australia. That’s what I want to see.

GILBERT: Stuart Robert?

ROBERT: I’d rather the union leaders stopped just backing exclusively unions on this. I want companies to get their own shops in order. I’d love the Senate to repeal the carbon tax and take $109 million away as an impost from Qantas. Now the Government will make itself clear in due course in terms of its action but right now the unions could be sitting down with their management looking at how best to help preserve and enhance job opportunities rather than digging their feet in.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, finally on this point to you: if it looks like the company is in dire trouble with a massive loss tomorrow and thousands of jobs lost, is Labor willing to show any flexibility on this front in trying to put it on a more sustainable footing?

ROWLAND: I’ve heard a lot about “sustainable footing” and “level playing field” here. But I haven’t heard anything, anything, that puts a commitment on Qantas to do these things about jobs that Stuart is talking about. To actually keep them in Australia. To make sure that we have an aviation industry and a national carrier that provides a service to Australians and performs a very important national function.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, Stuart Robert. Thank you both.